A picture of the book, the meritocracy trap
Opinion

The Meritocracy Trap: Required Reading for Anxious Elites

Story by| Harrison Linder, Former Managing Editor

A thought that has often crossed my mind since coming to Yale-NUS is: even though taking everything so seriously right now is clearly making me anxious and possibly even depressed, it will all pay off in the long run, right? While my instinct always says “no”, common sense has always said “yes”. Making sense of this dichotomy has proved impossible for me–until I read The Meritocracy Trap by Daniel Markovits.

Growing up, my parents always said that hard work early in life would pay off later. Good grades meant good schools, good schools meant good jobs, and good jobs meant good life. Throughout middle school and high school, this mantra rang true. While I never worked particularly hard compared to how hard I have worked at Yale-NUS, I worked harder than many of my friends and that led to good outcomes. 

After all, while most of my friends from high school ended up going to mid-tier University of California schools, e.g., UC Santa Cruz and UC Santa Barbara (both very good schools themselves), I was going to Yale-NUS–a college whose amenities and acceptance rate rival nearly any top tier private liberal arts college in the United States. I thought that with the apparently exceptional education that I would receive at Yale-NUS, I must have all but guaranteed myself that “good” life that my parents spoke about.

Hearing grand statements from members of the administration early in my Yale-NUS career built upon my parents’ narrative. At the 2017 first year assembly, Tan Tai Yong said, “[We are] attempting to develop in you the ability to grasp complexity, to cut through the fog and single out issues that really matter and then be creative in finding solutions to the problems you are trying to solve.” I believed that my hard work had landed me in this magical place where exceptional students like myself would find out what we really care about and ultimately learn how to live a good life.

But over my time at Yale-NUS, the narrative I had constructed began to fall apart. 

In conversation with classmates, I found that while Yale-NUS students come from all around the world, we nearly invariably come from the upper echelons of our countries, affording us far superior education to the average student in any country in the world. 

I am no exception. I went to a selective public high school in San Francisco, one of the richest cities in the United States, giving me a far better education than the typical American. That’s not to mention the variety of extracurricular activities that my parents paid for when I was younger.

I began to wonder: are we exceptional, or just exceptionally privileged?

But even as I began to realize my own privilege, I wished I had more. The idea that the “good” life would come in the form of some passionate journey in which I fight to solve the problems that really matter quickly faded. In its stead was a notion that the “good” life would probably come from the kind of high paying prestigious careers that many Yale-NUS students seemed to seek.

When I talked to classmates about the amount of test prep their parents made them do or the great computer science courses that were offered to them early in high school, I wondered where I would be if I were given such advantages. Maybe I would be at Harvard, or maybe I would be an MCS major. Both of these outcomes seemed like things that would allow me to more easily find a prestigious career in something like finance, consulting, or tech and ultimately achieve that “good” life. 

But seeing the way that some Yale-NUS students sacrifice mental health, sleep, and more for prestigious entry level jobs makes me think that I wouldn’t want one, regardless of what advantages I had. I have heard many stories about some of the smartest and most skilled students at Yale-NUS consistently working weekends and nights throughout the course of penultimate year finance internships–jeopardizing their mental and physical health in ways likely beyond their comprehension. 

Self-harm for the sake of achievement is not peculiar to Yale-NUS students pursuing finance. While I never seriously tried to pursue finance, I did for a semester think that I wanted to go to a prestigious law school back in the United States, which meant that I had better raise my CAP. That semester, I obsessed over my CAP in a way that impacted my mental health to the point where I literally performed worse than in the next semester where I intentionally didn’t think much about my CAP.

In speaking with peers, I have found that nearly every single one of us has put huge amounts of pressure on themselves to succeed regardless of the subject they study or industry they hope to join. And a lot of us are far from sure that what we are working towards really is that “good” life that our parents told us about.

Reading The Meritocracy Trap finally confirmed my intuitions about the toll that the achievement culture that pervades Yale-NUS has on those within it, while also opening my eyes to great damage that it has on those excluded from it.

Written by Yale Law Professor Daniel Markovits, The Meritocracy Trap boldly claims that the main cause of the growing gap between the rich and rest in America today is not greedy rent seekers profiting off of capital gains as most progressives claim, but rather by unwitting meritocrats. 

When in the 1960’s the Ivy league administrators began reforming its admissions system to enroll more students based on their achievements and fewer students based on lineage, they believed that they were permanently expanding opportunity to the most deserving students.

However, today, through huge investments in their children’s education (Markovits estimates that the average education that a rich American child receives over the average education of middle class child is worth the equivalent of a 10 million dollar inheritance), America’s elite give their children far superior educations to that of their middle class and poor peers. Wealthy students, through the exceptional experiences and skills that they gained in childhood, prove their apparent merit to elite schools. As a result, an increasingly outsized proportion of America’s universities, especially elite universities, are attended by the children of the rich (at Harvard and Yale, more students come from households in the top 1 percent of the income distribution than the entire bottom half). 

A huge proportion of the graduates of these elite schools pursue what Markovits calls “superordinate” careers: careers that require exceptional skills (typically gained through many stages of elite education) in exceptionally high paying industries like finance, management consulting, law and medicine. According to Markovits, roughly half of graduates from Yale, Princeton and Harvard interview with Wall Street firms or their affiliates.

With the exceptional incomes they receive, meritocrats are able to give their children the same kind of exceptional education that their parents gave them. This cycle continues through generations, creating a dynastic succession of wealth and status. This is far from what the original architects of meritocracy envisioned.

Markovits claims that meritocracy has failed not only because it allows the rich to provide more valuable education and job opportunities to their children, but also because meritocracy has continuously led to the creation of technologies that make elite workers more vital while rendering middle skilled workers obsolete, driving ever increasing labor market polarization.

While the meritocratic elite are afforded incredible wealth and status in contemporary America, it comes at a huge cost that leaves even them unhappy. Throughout their lives, meritocratic elites are expected to sacrifice personal interests and time with loved ones, and endure huge amounts of stress. 

The Meritocracy Trap is full of anecdotes and statistics that paint a vivid picture of the price that meritocrats pay. Today, students at wealthy high schools abuse alcohol and drugs at higher rates than their poor counterparts. A survey of Yale-Law School students found that 70 percent of them experienced mental health challenges during their time at Yale. A Bain & Company survey of over 1 thousand elite workers found that a substantial majority agreed with the statement that “an unwavering commitment to long hours and constant work” was required to get a promotion. 

Instead of ensuring “good” life for themselves and their children, meritocrats are buying into a system that is leaving most unhappy.

While this book focuses on the United States, the meritocracy trap affects many other countries, including Singapore. Considering Singaporean culture’s insistence on the value of meritocracy, it is no wonder to me that many segments of The Meritocracy Trap make essentially the same arguments as segments of Teo Yeo Yenn’s This is What Inequality Looks Like. And while Yale-NUS students come from around the world, we applied to the same prestigious schools and we compete with each other for prestigious jobs at the same companies that Ivy League graduates do. 

I know this article won’t speak to everyone; many students at Yale-NUS have a clear-eyed picture of what they are working for. But if you are like me–struggling for that “good” life even though you are unsure if it even exists, read The Meritocracy Trap.

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One thought on “The Meritocracy Trap: Required Reading for Anxious Elites

  1. to add, merit is inseparable from the market. whatever is profitable at any given time is considered the worthy/valuable pursuit. as you said, with nepotism the meritocrats are able to always stay ahead of the curve, with better education, connections, wider platforms, etc., thus earning more than the rest. those without access to information, connections, and platforms cannot keep up with the ever-changing and elite-favoring market demands, but when they end up with lower-paying jobs (or no job), it’s supposedly due to their lack of ability/merit/work ethic/talent/etc. wealth begets information/connections/platforms begets power begets more wealth (like the creation of elite-job favoring tech mentioned), and this phenomenon only occurs in a system that allows such an accumulation&consolidation of wealth/power. the market and its winners should not exclusively determine what is worthy. people should not starve/suffer because they lack the prevailing notion of “merit”. progress is good but not at such a cost

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